At no point during the first two acts of “The Naked Gun” is there any hint that viewers will spend the final minutes of the film caught up in the minutiae of a baseball game. But the entire plot of this classic film hangs on hardball.
Every joke, every sight gag, every frame of celluloid in the first 59 minutes 45 seconds is just a brick on the path that leads to one of the most inspired finales, combining sport and comedy, ever put on screen.
For the young or otherwise unaware, “The Naked Gun” is a 1988 slapstick parody based on the short-lived 1982 TV series “Police Squad!”, which was produced by the creative team behind the all-time-great parody “Airplane!” The series starred Leslie Nielsen as Lt. Frank Drebin, a bumbling but straight-faced police detective, and, much like “Airplane!”, relied heavily on humorous wordplay and zany sight gags.
So, “The Naked Gun” plays like a feature-length version of “Police Squad!” and co-stars otherwise-serious performers including George Kennedy, Ricardo Montalban and Priscilla Presley.
One might expect a police parody to end with an over-the-top car chase or perhaps a crazy shootout. But not this movie, not in the hands of four baseball nuts with a penchant for zaniness.
As we reach the third act, the stakes are high:
— There’s an evil scheme to assassinate the visiting Queen Elizabeth.
— It’s going to happen at a baseball game, during the seventh inning stretch, and will be carried out by a mystery player.
— Drebin, who has been kicked off the force after some questionable tactics, must find a way to stop it.
But what will he do? How will it be funny? These were among the questions that writers David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Pat Proft considered as they wrote what became one of the more iconic set pieces in 1980s comedy.
It was a finale born during serious contemplation in the years after the big success of “Airplane!” — a period that also included the filmmakers’ funny but shapeless war movie/Elvis musical mash-up parody “Top Secret!”
Regardless of the motivation, the decision to end “The Naked Gun” at a baseball game was a winning one — and it still resonates with guffaws and meme-worthy pop culture content 30 years after its release.
“The baseball game stuff is some of my most favorite stuff that we’ve done,” Proft said.
This is how it came together.
The story matters a lot, especially the third act.
That’s the lesson David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams learned from the success of “Airplane!” Or, more accurately, it’s what they learned from the box office failure of their follow-up parody, “Top Secret!”
The widespread success of “Airplane!” produced one small but significant downside for the comedy trio, collectively known as ZAZ: It led them to unwittingly favor jokes and gags over narrative and structure.
“We just thought ‘Airplane!’ worked because it was a bunch of good jokes,” Abrahams said. “But, in fact, it had to do with story.”
Not that the story should be the main appeal of a parody, just that there must be a good story for the jokes to serve. Although “Airplane!” was a joke- and gag-heavy enterprise, the film had an obvious story with three distinct acts, along with a main character who had a clear arc. “Top Secret!”, though, had major narrative and character issues.
“Who knew what the end of that was about?” Abrahams said.
So, on “The Naked Gun,” ZAZ and co-writer Pat Proft made sure to focus on the narrative.
“Most of the time, us civilians can’t get away with ignoring story structure,” David Zucker said. “And ‘Naked Gun’ had great, great story structure.”
And what about the third act?
Ideally, a strong third act not only brings the story to a conclusion, but it helps the main character evolve, even in a parody. What has he learned? How has he grown? What has he overcome?
And, of course, it needs to be funny.
But — and this is a big one — it has to be relatable. Specifically, it should take place in a setting familiar to the audience. For “The Naked Gun,” the writers wanted a big, public event.
“Baseball was an obvious solution,” Abrahams said.
Any major sporting event could’ve filled the need for relatability, but baseball lent a practical advantage: a plausible way for Drebin/Nielsen to go undercover.
“It was believable because he could be in the umpire’s mask,” David Zucker said. “We loved having Leslie go undercover in various situations, even in the ‘Police Squad!’ TV series. That was always really good material for jokes.”
Indeed, it would provide a bevy of laughs in “The Naked Gun.”
Taking baseball too seriously
Sometimes the material almost writes itself. And, it turns out, baseball offers significant inspiration for humor — much of it visual.
That’s why, unlike the rest of “The Naked Gun,” the baseball sequence is mostly free of jokey dialogue. The “jokes” here are a concoction of sight gags and physical comedy playing off both the routines of the MLB experience and those idiosyncrasies of baseball players — the crotch-grabbing, sign-flashing, obsessive home-plate cleaning, and spitting. So much spitting.
Add a clueless but determined police detective into the mix and the result is a sequence that does what any good parody aims to do — poke fun at something that people tend to take too seriously.
“There’s so much that’s taken seriously about baseball,” Abrahams said.
That’s an understatement that was as true in 1988 as it is today. So much of baseball culture is seen as stiff and joyless. Just consider the traditionally stoic nature of everything, the ongoing debates over bat flips, home run trots, pace of play and the rest of the unwritten rules. It’s ripe for parody.
Laughing at the normally stiff and serious is “a very healthy laugh,” Abrahams said.
“In a sense, you’re having a laugh at your own expense too. You’re kind of saying, ‘You know what? I took that seriously, and I didn’t really have to take it that seriously,’” he said. “That’s sort of the spirit of parody, I think.”
ZAZ and Proft approached the sequence with a nothing-is-off-limits approach. They looked at every aspect of a baseball game — from the perspectives of fans, players, coaches, broadcasters and umpires — to find the bits most suitable for a send-up.
“We tossed all those jokes around and found out that we had an actual third act, which was so amazing. And so we knew what we were headed for,” Proft said. “We actually had that solid first. We had the ending first and worked backward.”
It was their usual collaborative process: One idea would lead to another, then another, then another. One gag would piggyback onto something else. Everyone contributed, and all agreed to not take sole credit for anything.
“As the years have gone by, I don’t think any of us really remember specifically writing a joke,” Abrahams said. “And moreover, by and large, there weren’t any jokes written by (only) one of us.”
Not every joke survived, but each one that made the final cut was honed until it came out just right. Even throwaway lines and gags that seem simple or obvious underwent intense scrutiny.
“In those days, we would take a year — literally a year — to write the script,” David Zucker said. “All that stuff was written: every montage, every joke. It was all scripted. It was a luxury when I showed up on the set. I knew I had good jokes to shoot that had survived a year of editing.”
That’s not to say there weren’t missed opportunities.
As Abrahams recalled working on the film, he tangentially mentioned that he’d recently seen a former catcher, now a broadcaster, give a real-time lesson during a broadcast on a catcher flashing finger signs to his pitcher. It struck him, in epiphany-like fashion, as a big whiff on potential comedy gold.
“We never thought of that,” he said, somewhat regretfully. “We just didn’t think of it. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even think of it until just now having this conversation.”
Many movies would’ve used generic-sounding teams for this kind of sequence, perhaps not wanting to go through the process, cost and potential headaches of licensing official team names and logos from MLB.
“The Naked Gun” would take no such shortcut.
This game features the Mariners and Angels, two real-life baseball teams. But that was never the plan. The Zuckers and Abrahams, three Wisconsinites, hoped for some hometown flair.
“We wanted the Brewers,” David Zucker said. “We applied to MLB and they said you have to take the Mariners. … I think they were trying to help that franchise. That was a weak franchise (at the time) and must’ve been weaker than the Brewers.”
That was actually one of two team rejections the filmmakers encountered. Given their Los Angeles setting, they tried to get the Dodgers to participate but were met with only partial cooperation.
“The Dodgers didn’t want to be mentioned,” David Zucker said. “They certainly didn’t want to be one of the teams. They were willing to rent us their stadium, but didn’t want it to say Dodger Stadium.”
(A Dodgers spokesman told SN the team didn’t want to participate because of an on-field brawl at the end of the sequence. We’ll get to that.)
So they snagged the other local team, the Angels. This kept an LA connection, but produced the odd sight of the Mariners and Angels playing in the very recognizable Dodger Stadium — leading to decades of questions among fans of the film. (Adding to the confusion is an establishing shot that’s actually Angels Stadium).
And speaking of the nonsensical, there’s also a shot during the sequence that’s obviously Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Some might assume this was intentional, meant to add to the randomness. Not so.
“We just needed a stock shot for that angle, and we didn’t have one of Dodger Stadium,” David Zucker said. “They either didn’t have it or wouldn’t let us use it, so we just used Wrigley Field.”
But, as he put it, who cares? None of it really mattered, except to add relatability.
“We definitely wanted real teams,” he said. “It’s just fake if you have to say a (generic) city. It really would take it down a huge step to have fake teams.”
Meanwhile, co-writer Proft, a Minnesota native, made an unsuccessful attempt to lure his favorite team.
“I tried to get the Twins to be involved, but they didn’t want to,” he said.
‘It just didn’t make any sense’
In any baseball-themed movie, the people in uniform need to at least look like real players. Baseball fans, and probably moviegoers in general, can usually spot a fake.
Actors-as-players tend to stick out. They don’t move right, or they don’t stand quite right, or, in the worst cases, they clearly do not possess athletic skills.
So the approach in “The Naked Gun,” as it was in most baseball movies of the day, was to use professionals. And in those days, there was a regular group of ex-players and minor leaguers that made the rounds when a production required a realistic baseball sequence.
In one respect, “The Naked Gun” was just another assignment. In another respect, it was anything but.
“I didn’t realize what I was getting into,” said Chuck Fick, a former minor leaguer who played the Angels’ catcher in the film. “I didn’t know it was a slapstick at first, and I started reading the script, and once I saw the umpires got (a player) in a pickle, I knew something was up.”
Fick learned quickly that it was best to just embrace the wackiness. In doing so, he ended up with the most screen time of any player. As the catcher, he was in nearly every shot involving Nielsen as the undercover umpire, including a few close-ups and even some lines of dialogue — a total of more than two minutes overall.
“When you do these pictures, you never know what they keep in or what they leave on the floor,” said Fick, now a scout for the Giants. “But I was astonished on how much I was in the picture.”
Fick took part in one of the standout gags of the sequence when he caught the honorary first pitch from the queen, whose offering had some, um, nasty spin. The extreme movement on the queen’s pitch — the ball corkscrews into Fick’s glove — was not a special effect, but a practical one.
“It was literally shot out of a bazooka,” Fick said. “It was on a wire, on a real thin wire. And it was drilled through the ball. So when the guy shot it, he did a circular move with the bazooka, and that made the ball do its thing coming into my glove. It just went right in there. I wonder what the exit velo was on it.”
Speaking of velocity, using real players afforded the filmmakers a chance to live a dream.
“The guy who was the pitcher was a (real) pitcher. I think his fastball was like 92 or 93 mph. So I asked him if he’d throw me a pitch. And I swear I didn’t see it,” Abrahams said. “I don’t know how guys hit those.”
“I remember asking the pitcher … just to pitch to me. ‘Give me a high hard one,’ and he did. He put me down,” Proft said. “He gave me a little chin music. I hit the deck. … I bailed out so quickly.”
Many of the players in the baseball sequence came from the San Bernardino Spirit, a California League team that formed in 1987 and later became affiliated with the Mariners. The man who wrangled the players on set was baseball adviser Joey Banks, son of Hall of Famer Ernie Banks.
He had worked with most of the players on other film projects, so he knew he had a reliable group. And that’s important because, even in a slapstick parody, it’s important to get the baseball right in a way that fits the script — and on demand.
Not every player can do it under the circumstances.
“You could be a great ballplayer, but once they say ‘action,’ your butthole gets tight,” Banks said. “It’s a whole other type of pressure that you face when you have the whole crew waiting on you to hit the ball to the right side and you don’t do that.”
This is true even when the requested baseball action isn’t exactly normal. With the team behind “Airplane!” running the show on “The Naked Gun,” Banks and his players had to be up for anything. Sometimes, despite the filmmakers’ devotion to the script, inspiration and experimentation would strike on set.
“The Zuckers would think of things just at random,” said Banks, who also suited up as a player in the film. “They would get together and they’d just go, ‘OK, we need a picnic out in right center field. And two people are out there having a picnic and then we pull back and the center fielder is catching a football.’ It just didn’t make any sense. That was their thing.”
The biggest dose of that doesn’t make sense comes via a montage on the outfield video board.
What begins as a normal set of real MLB bloopers quickly morphs into the absurd: A player gets mauled by a tiger while sliding into second. Another player gets run over by a car while chasing a fly ball. An outfielder gets decapitated by a home run ball.
You know, routine baseball stuff.
“Half of what makes it funny is when we cut to the announcers,” David Zucker said.
Ahh, yes. The announcers.
‘How about that?!’
For “The Naked Gun,” the filmmakers recruited an all-star list of sports broadcasters.
The lineup: Curt Gowdy, Dick Enberg, Jim Palmer, Mel Allen, Tim McCarver, Dick Vitale and, of course, psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers.
That’s obviously a strong list. But it wasn’t as strong as it could’ve been.
“We wanted to use Vin Scully as an announcer, and Vin Scully wanted to do it because he loved ‘Airplane!’ But they wouldn’t let him do that,” David Zucker said. “… I’m sure nowadays it would probably be fine. But (the Dodgers) were skeptical about being identified with this.”
(Nobody with the Dodgers recalled Scully being denied permission to be in the film, a spokesman said.)
In the film, the announcers mostly provide routine commentary, but also have a couple of standout moments — including the aforementioned decapitation at the outfield wall, to which Allen gives a hearty laugh followed by his signature, “How about that?!”
“And then Dick Enberg is just open-mouthed, appalled at it,” David Zucker said. “I love those shots.”
The announcers had no problem getting into Hollywood versions of themselves.
“They said, ‘Listen: first-class ticket to LA, $7,500 — I think that’s what it was,” Palmer said, recalling the mental checklist that followed. “I go, ‘OK, one-day shoot, first-class ticket, I’ll go play volleyball, the weather will be nice, it won’t be hot like Baltimore.’
“So I said I’ll go. I had no idea what it was going to be. … Little did I know it was going to become one of the classics.”
The announcers spent a leisurely day on a sound stage, nowhere near the field at Dodger Stadium, doing take after take and getting a good taste of the Hollywood process.
“We all knew each other. It was a hoot. It was fun,” McCarver said, though he does have one regret.
“I wanted to meet (Elvis Presley’s former wife) Priscilla Presley, but didn’t,” he said. “I’m from Memphis and had met Elvis several times. So I was disappointed with that.”
The day was revelatory for Palmer, the Hall of Fame pitcher who still broadcasts games for the Orioles.
“That’s when I realized that Dick Vitale doesn’t scream and yell (all the time),” he said of the famously boisterous basketball broadcaster, who, ironically, has no featured lines in the final cut of the film. “You could hardly hear him. He was so quiet.”
David Zucker, director of “The Naked Gun,” gives direction to the all-star cast of broadcasters during filming. (Photo courtesy of David Zucker)
The baseball-loving filmmakers enjoyed the experience as much as the broadcasters.
“Meeting Mel Allen was kind of a big deal,” Abrahams said. “There weren’t that many faces of baseball back then, and he was one. He was iconic.”
Unlike on “Airplane!” — when a couple of actors didn’t quite get the tone of the film at first — the announcers knew what they were getting into with ZAZ and Proft at the helm.
“When you see a guy or a woman kind of making fun of their own image, it’s a self-effacing laugh and it’s kind of endearing,” Abrahams said. “Those guys who are willing to have a laugh at their own expense, and at their own image, I think audiences like that.”
The national anthem
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the entire sequence comes when Drebin, impersonating fictional opera singer Enrico Pallazzo, realizes he has to sing the national anthem in front of 50,000 people — while keeping on the lookout for a potential assassin.
The humor comes as Drebin bumbles his way through the song, which he only vaguely seems to know, mostly making up the verses as he goes.
“I always wanted to have somebody screw up the national anthem,” Proft said.
This would be an example of the ever-important concept of having jokes serve the story in a third act. ZAZ and Proft knew that Nielsen spoofing the anthem would be funny, but there had to be a reason for him to do it. It had to advance the plot. Narratively, it allowed Drebin to reach the field undetected.
“The jokes are always the easiest. The hardest part for us is always the character and the story,” Abrahams said. “I’ll bet you any bunch of guys or women could sit around and make a pretty funny bunch of lyrics up for somebody who doesn’t really know the words to the national anthem.”
Despite the improvisational feel, every one of those mangled lyrics was scripted.
“There’s no ad-libbing,” David Zucker said of Nielsen. “I think a lot of other directors thought that because Leslie was so hysterical in ‘The Naked Gun’ that they could just turn a camera on this guy and he’d be funny. But they found out the hard way that wasn’t true. The writing has to be good.”
Whether through scripted butchering or improvisation, the national anthem seemed fair game for spoofing in 1988. That’s a major contrast to 2018, when the anthem has been elevated to a sacred, untouchable level by a large segment of the American public.
“I don’t know that we’d get away with that scene today,” Abrahams said. “We probably wouldn’t.”
Not that anyone has regrets.
“I don’t like being told what patriotism is,” Proft said. “It was done with humor. … He’s screwing it up because he was in a position where he’s undercover. He has to save the queen. I think we’d all screw up the national anthem to save the queen, wouldn’t we?”
David Zucker discusses the national anthem scene with Leslie Nielsen during the filming of “The Naked Gun” at Dodger Stadium. (Photo courtesy of David Zucker)
Drebin’s undercover work as the umpire anchors the laughs from the moment the game gets underway with a subtle sight gag: A first-pitch fastball down the middle is met with silence, uncertainty and an extended, awkward pause.
The batter, former MLB jokester Jay Johnstone, playing himself, stares back quizzically. Fick, the catcher, looks back, similarly puzzled.
“Strike?” Drebin finally suggests.
The crowd roars, and that energy revs up the humor as Drebin goes from unsure ump to ultimate showboat. He shimmies, dances, moonwalks and otherwise creates a massive ump show. Twitter would’ve loved/hated it.
(FYI: Drebin’s dancing was actually performed by a guy known as Johnny Disco — “That was his name. He introduced himself as Johnny Disco,” Fick said — so you had Leslie Nielsen as Drebin impersonating an umpire and Johnny Disco impersonating Nielsen as Drebin impersonating an umpire. Got it?)
As the game goes on, so do the hijinks. Via montage, we watch Drebin frisk each player, much to their surprise and annoyance. He finds no weapon on the pitcher, but does find sandpaper, a power sander and a jar of Vaseline — a nod to the late-‘80s trend of pitchers getting busted for doctoring the ball.
The filmmakers also take time to goof on other aspects of the MLB experience: Silly signs from a coach, diverse concession options (personal cakes!), the wave and more.
“All these things that I always thought would be funny ended up being (funny), which was good,” Proft said.
The bulk of this let’s-speed-things-along montage plays against Randy Newman’s song “I Love LA,” which, while geographically appropriate, wasn’t the original idea.
“I actually wanted Randy Newman to write an original song about baseball, which would’ve been a good idea. A Randy Newman song about baseball would’ve been great,” David Zucker said. “But he didn’t want to do that. He said, ‘Why don’t you just use ‘I Love LA?’ ’ So that’s what we did.”
With the assassin set to strike during the seventh-inning stretch, Drebin needs to make the top of the seventh last as long as possible.
This sets up a preposterously over-the-top sequence that not only includes Drebin intentionally blowing calls to delay the third out, but also includes him interfering with a rundown play, culminating in a comically intense argument that results in Drebin giving two umpires the heave-ho — including real-life MLB ump Joe West, who protests, “You can’t throw an umpire out of the game!”
It lasted about 30 seconds on screen, but “was probably the most extreme deal in the whole sequence,” Banks said. The multiple takes and all the back-and-forth action were a physical challenge.
“We had oxygen there for the guys because, you know, it’s a rundown. Not for any of the players, but it was more for … some of the older fellas,” he said. “We had a tank nearby just so they could get their wind back. I can’t remember if they used it, but we had it there.”
‘I must kill the queen’
Through 6 ½ innings in this Mariners-Angels showdown, nobody knows the identity of the would-be assassin. But the big payoff comes with the revelation that it’s superstar and future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson. Naturally.
Mr. October didn’t mind.
“Reggie Jackson’s a wonderful guy with a great sense of humor — and really fun to be with,” Abrahams said.
In the film, though, Jackson has unknowingly (we assume) fallen victim to “sensory-induced hypnosis,” something that bad guy Ricardo Montalban has developed to carry out his evil scheme.
Jackson walks coldly and mechanically, but with purpose, from right field toward the stands near the dugout, picking up a gun from under second base along the way.
“We got Reggie’s character from ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ That’s where that whole notion came from,” Abrahams said, referencing the 1962 thriller about sleeper agents. “A lot of our inspiration for everything we did was watching serious movies and ripping them off.”
Jackson even lent some input into his onscreen persona.
“When he’s walking toward the queen, he’s acting like a robot,” David Zucker said. “That was his total idea. I would’ve had him just walk regular, but he wanted to do that.”
Jackson’s only line — the memorable, staccato “I must kill (pause) the queen” — might be the most-repeated dialogue from the entire film.
“They didn’t give me anything else,” Jackson told Fox Sports in 2016. “They didn’t think I could remember that much.”
One might assume that Jackson’s part was a happy coincidence of the Angels’ participation in the film. Nope. The filmmakers wanted him all along, even if the teams had been different. (And never mind that he was a year into retirement at that point.)
“We would’ve used Reggie anyway. We would’ve put him in a Dodger uniform,” David Zucker said. “He was one of the most famous, identifiable players there was at the time.”
As Jackson struts toward the queen, Drebin, still engulfed in his umpire argument, finally notices. He pulls his gun, which settles the umpires’ dispute, and tackles Jackson from behind. Naturally, an umpire tackling a player — even in this crazy, fictionalized version of a big-league baseball game — incites a near-riot among the Angels. And the Mariners, too, for some reason.
So a big brawl ensues: a huge dog pile, bodies flying through the air, a player smashing a chair into another guy’s back, mass hysteria.
(Remember, this is why the Dodgers didn’t want to participate. “Senses of humor are scarce,” David Zucker said.)
It was all meticulously scripted and staged, of course.
“Everything was really choreographed well,” said Fick, the former minor leaguer, who took and gave a few fake punches. “It wasn’t that easy to film.”
Obviously, Jackson fails in his attempt to assassinate the queen. This is a comedy, after all. He’s ultimately foiled by a wayward tranquilizer dart from Drebin that flies into the upper deck and strikes a large woman, who falls on Jackson from on high to end the threat.
Only then is Drebin’s true identity revealed, prompting a classic punch line of misdirection.
“Hey! It’s Enrico Pallazzo!”
“One of my favorite jokes that gets quoted back to me a lot,” Proft said.
The ending — and the other ending
Saving the day is never simple or easy, so the foiled assassination is only part of the film’s finale. That’s because bad guy Montalban has taken Drebin’s girlfriend Jane, played by Presley, hostage at gunpoint and dragged her up to the Dodger Stadium mezzanine.
From there, the third act gallops to a conclusion:
— Drebin disposes of the bad guy. Yay!
— We learn that Jane has been mind-programmed to kill Drebin. A twist!
— Drebin professes his love to Jane. She doesn’t kill him. Yay!
— Love wins, a tsunami of good will fills the stadium, and all is well. Yay!
Then, one last gag.
Drebin’s pal Nordberg, played by pre-infamous O.J. Simpson, shows up in a wheelchair, recovered from massive injuries sustained in Act 1. An ecstatic Drebin gives him a hearty pat on the back, sending the wheelchair violently down the stairs of the upper deck and launching Nordberg over the railing, presumably down to the field to suffer another agonizing injury.
Cut to black. Roll credits.
But there was supposed to be one more scene.
The original plan called for everyone — the principals, the players, some fans, the queen and others — to join hands and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in a song-and-dance finale. It was apparently a bad idea.
“We shot something, but it was stupid and not funny. ‘Stupid’ we can accommodate, but not ‘not funny,’” David Zucker said. “It was obvious after the first test screening — we got a huge laugh on Nordberg going over the railing. … So you just end on the biggest laugh.”
Still, the musical number produced at least one memorable moment.
Jeannette Charles, the prim and proper English actress who played the queen, seemed uncomfortable with the scene. Charles, who portrayed the queen often because of her uncanny resemblance to the actual Queen Elizabeth II, was the only one not singing.
“The director says, ‘You’re not singing the song,’” Fick said. “She goes, ‘I don’t know the (bleepin’) song!’”
Leslie Nielsen, closet comedian
It’s awfully hard for the makers of “The Naked Gun” to talk about the movie and not almost immediately zero in on Nielsen. Other actors could’ve played Frank Drebin — some could’ve probably done it well — but it just wouldn’t have been the same.
“He loved doing this. He was a closet comedian all through his career,” David Zucker said of Nielsen, who died in 2010 at age 84. “He loved every situation. Like throwing a fish into water.”
Fick remembered him as an amiable pro’s pro who seemed effortlessly funny during filming.
“Leslie, he was just a natural,” Fick said. “That’s what made it so enjoyable.”
Nielsen kept the comedy coming even after the cameras stopped.
His go-to gag on sets was a hand-held fart machine that he’d use to produce awkward moments with unsuspecting cast and crew. Nearly everyone fell victim at some point.
“He could make a long, wet one or he could make a quick one,” Banks said. “He was quite the off-camera comedian.”
Nielsen’s antics were a pleasant surprise for those on set who had worked with other famously funny people.
“Some of those comedians have a dark side to them. Once they say cut, they shut it down,” Banks said. “But Leslie didn’t do that. He was funny all the time.”
That jokester influence even touched Banks’ Hall of Fame father, who visited the set and apparently came away ready to embrace mischief.
“He really loved that hand farter,” Banks said of his father. “He had me go and get two hand farters for him.”
Johnstone, long known as a clubhouse prankster who was never afraid to try to loosen up his teammates, said Nielsen was especially good at helping the non-actors feel comfortable and part of the team.
Nielsen’s approachability and disarming personality went a long way on set.
“I’d go, ‘Hey Leslie, can you help this guy out? He’s a little nervous. He’s never done this stuff before,’” Johnstone said. “(He’d say), ‘I’ve got him. I’ve got him covered. Don’t worry about it.’”
Banks summed Nielsen up thusly: “Leslie was the glue to that whole deal.”
While “The Naked Gun” as a whole has enjoyed impressive longevity among movie fans — it’s often cited among the funniest movies of all time — the baseball sequence endures on a near-daily basis on social media during the spring and summer.
When an umpire makes an obviously bad call, or seems to want to upstage the game, it usually doesn’t take long for someone to tweet a video or meme of Nielsen’s umpire antics. Or when someone accidentally flubs the national anthem, there are often comparisons to Nielsen’s bungling of the song.
Not to mention that portions of the baseball sequence still get frequent play on video boards in MLB ballparks.
Add all this to the ongoing TV airings, DVD and digital sales, and the film feels fresh — so much so that strangers still come with compliments.
“I’ll be at the gym,” Palmer said, “and they’ll go, ‘God, love your movie.’ And I’ll say, ‘You mean “The Naked Gun?” And they’ll go, ‘Yeah.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, not exactly.’”
The ongoing recognition aside, the movie keeps giving in other ways, too.
“I just got a residual for $175 the other day,” Fick said.
Not all residuals are created equally, though.
“It’s almost laughable what we get. Like $5, or something like that, three times a year,” McCarver said. “It’s funny. I laugh every time I get a residual check.”
Palmer might have reason to laugh the loudest.
“I still get some royalties,” he said, “49 cents or something like that.”
But the point remains: A lot of people are still aware — and still talk about — “The Naked Gun.”
“It’s a classic,” Palmer said. “They were a pretty ingenious group that did that movie, as they did in ‘Airplane!’ … There are just certain movies I think that become cult-like, and I think ‘The Naked Gun’ is one of them.”
ZAZ and Proft hoped they’d have a hit, but nobody ever knows for sure. Still, it’s not all that surprising the movie — the baseball sequence, in particular — resonates after 30 years.
“Physical humor and silly will ride into the sunset. It always makes sense,” Proft said. “There’s always a moment where this kind of stuff will occur in actual life.”
Real-life example: When President Donald Trump sang along with the national anthem, but appeared to not know all the words.
“They showed Leslie doing it, side by side. I saw that on the news,” Proft said. “That’s pretty cool, actually.”
Ultimately, though, “The Naked Gun” baseball sequence works because it’s timeless — just like the sport it lampoons. As long as people watch baseball games, the sequence will have an appreciative audience.
“The jokes that were funny in 1988 are still funny today, and everybody shares the references,” David Zucker said. “We set up the clichés and reversed the audience’s expectation of the outcome. That’s all it is. … That worked 30 years ago, it’ll work today and it’ll work 30 years from now.”
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